Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Diablerie, Virtuosity, and Melancholy at Pacific Symphony

Vincent Price as Prince Prospero encounters himself as nemesis in The Masque of the Red Death
(dir. Roger Corman, 1964); Poe's original story inspired Christopher Rouse's Prospero's Rooms.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Michael Francis.
The combination of never having heard anything by Christopher Rouse performed live, nor yet a Paganini violin concerto or Rachmaninoff’s final symphony in a concert hall for nearly 30 years, was enough to make the PSO’s late February program stand out. Add to that the prospect of enjoying once again Michael Francis’s conducting of the orchestra (their magisterial account of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 still a stand-out memory), plus the violin virtuosity of Augustin Hadelich—last here in the very different territory of Bernstein’s Serenade—and the concert became unmissable. And it didn’t disappoint.

Given how far ahead orchestral scheduling has to be, the performance of Prospero’s Rooms was doubtless planned as one more flag-wave in the PSO’s long commitment to living American composers, but as Christopher Rouse died last September in his 71st year, it became a kind of memorial to this highly distinguished figure. But if a memorial, then a somewhat macabre one, as the Prospero of the title is not Shakespeare’s island sorcerer, but the castle-entrapped Prince in Poe’s five-page firecracker of a story, The Masque of the Red Death.

Christopher Rouse.
Rouse himself noted that he once contemplated this as the basis for an opera, but “decided to redirect [his] ideas into what might be considered an overture to an unwritten opera.” Whether overture, tone-poem, or “concert opener” (as Rouse’s publisher describes it), Prospero’s Rooms gripped right from its opening measures, as bass trombone, tuba, contrabassoon, bell plate, gong and tam-tam heaved and slithered in the subterranean gloom of divided lower strings, before an expertly managed poco a poco accelerando drove into the main body of the piece.

Here, as the music surged from one vivid texture to the next, the image of “Mad Vince” in the Roger Corman movie came readily to mind, though the score of Prospero's Rooms makes no explicit correlations with the blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and finally black and blood-red chambers through which the maddened Prince Prospero rushes to his doom. Through it all Mr. Francis and the PSO on top form clearly reveled in Rouse’s seething riot of orchestral color, rendered the yet more vivid, of course, by the Segerstrom Hall’s marvelous acoustic.

Lithograph of Paganini in action,
by Richard James Lane (1831).
For this listener, this work was a perfect follow-on from the PSO’s last concert (the fons et origo of macabre Romantic music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastiquereviewed here), and it was also an appropriate opener to one that celebrated a performer and composer widely rumored in his day to have devilish associations, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840).

The paradox is that Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 6—composed probably between 1817 and 1818 and for which he famously avoided writing out the solo part to avoid plagiarism—is a thoroughly amiable piece which, in the first movement at least, alternates between rum-ti-tum orchestral tuttis and what amounts to accompanied cadenzas that repeatedly send the violin into ionospheric regions rarely penetrated by any other composer.

Such drama as there is is mostly grease-painted rhetoric, as in the brief slow movement where those exchanges between orchestra and soloist now lie in minor-key shadow. For this listener, the best of the work lies in the finale, a resourceful rondo based on an irrepressible, irresistible melody that requires the soloist to time perfectly the “ricochet” bowing effect to produce groups of 64th notes within the movement’s Allegro spirituoso march tempo.

Augustin Hadelich.
Needless to say, the 35-year-old Italian-born violinist Augustin Hadelich accomplished this over and over again with immaculate precision, but there was so much more to his performance than sheer virtuosity. Throughout, he gave Paganini’s concerto the same grace, delicacy and interpretative focus that he brought to the Bernstein Serenade two seasons ago.

Supported by incisive conducting and spirited playing of an orchestral part not exactly brimming with opportunities for individuals to shine—apart from Paganini’s frequent resort to the bassoon (played by Rose Corrigan) to counterpoint his soloist—what can be 37 minutes of tawdry exhibitionism in lesser hands was a musical delight throughout. Just the first sign of Mr. Francis’s care was the way that from the start he reined in the bass drum/cymbal crashes with which Paganini peppers his tuttis, so that they registered as touches of color rather than dominant punctuation points.

Called back again and again by a cheering audience, surprisingly but gratifyingly full for a winter Thursday evening, Mr. Hadelich rewarded their fervor with an encore—not, as one might have expected, a Paganini Caprice but instead a transcription (by Barato?) of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, in which his violin impersonated a guitar with eerie fidelity…

And so to the single work in the second half. Composed at the same time (1935-36) as another great Russian symphony, also in three movements, by a composer a generation younger and writing within that country rather than as an exile from it, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 44 is a very different reaction to the homeland in the mid-1930s from that of Dmitri Shostakovich in his tumultuous Fourth Symphony.

Where the latter in seeming response to the Stalinist tyranny swings between rage, hysteria, and black farce before dissolving into an endless frozen stasis, Rachmaninoff’s symphonic response, composed at his newly completed Villa Senar on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, is richly melancholic, imbued with regret and nostalgia for the country itself as he knew it before departing the Revolution in 1917—as Mr. Francis emphasized in crisply articulated comments before raising his baton.

Drawing by Möri & Krebs Architekten of their design for Rachmaninoff's Villa Senar.
Though clearly thought-through and played with conviction and panache by the PSO (for whom apparently this was the first outing with the symphony in 41 years!), I felt Mr. Francis’s interpretation just a little too laden with overt longing. At the beginning of the main body of the first movement, for example, he responded whole-heartedly to its dolce ed espressivo marking, but was well under the metronome of quarter note=100, with a consequent loss of the momentum Rachmaninoff builds into his themes and their evolution. Regrettably missing, too, was the first movement exposition repeat.

But against this there was throughout an emphatic brilliance of articulation, so that the complex textures never became saturated. This was particularly true near the start of the Adagio ma non troppo, where the massed unison violins took up the principal theme with glistening splendor. This movement, most original in structure for Rachmaninoff with its enclosure of a central scherzo-like section between the slow outer parts, is particularly rich in solos, the long opening horn melody (played by Keith Popejoy) and its answer by violin (Concertmaster Dennis Kim) only the first of many—and all of them taken here with the utmost poetry and distinction.

Rachmaninoff in the mid-1930s, when he
composed his Third Symphony.
For me, the finale of this symphony is problematic. It opens with a fine flourish of positivity, and for most of its length is full of activity, but its main melodies fail to reach the memorability Rachmaninoff achieves in comparable movements in other works (not to mention the killer tune he conjures for this symphony's first movement second subject), and in the coda he seems to be searching for a focus, or nexus, that never comes, settling instead for an ending that allies a kind of would-be gay insouciance with explosive energy that together fail to convince.

Nonetheless Mr. Francis and the orchestra delivered an ebullient account of the movement (in particular, the strings’ delivery of their fugato in the development section was a model of articulation and clarity), with as much conviction as the composer can enable. The Third Symphony is the centerpiece of Rachmaninoff’s final trilogy of orchestral masterpieces, between the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances, and if it lacks overall the brilliant inventiveness of the former or the more settled focus of the latter, it is still, as Mr. Francis remarked, “one of the most important symphonies of the 20th century.”

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday February 27, 2020, 8 p.m.
Images: Michael Francis: Columbia Artists; Christopher Rouse: Getty, courtesy classic fm; Vincent Price: DVD Beaver; Paganini: Wikimedia Commons; Augustin Hadelich: Suxiao Yang, Wikimedia Commons; Rachmaninoff: Wikimedia Commons; Villa Senar: Rachmaninoff Network.

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

No comments: